“Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints, it takes and it takes and it takes, and we keep living anyway…”
So goes one of the best lines from one of the best songs unleashed on the American public last year. The song is “Wait for It” from the Broadway musical/cultural juggernaut Hamilton written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. I spent a great deal of time during the weeks right before and after the end of 2015 trying to write something about that song for this very blog. I gave up because everything I wrote seemed insufferably trite by that point, but this week, man – this week those words will not leave my brain! Death has seemed particularly callous as of late in its taking and taking and taking of so many beloved entertainers, but it hit its apex of callousness when it took David Bowie.
I’m fairly confident that Bowie would approve of my choice to begin this post with a quote from one of the best and most ambitious Broadway musicals of recent memory. After all, the second side of 1974’s Diamond Dogs is comprised of songs that were written for a musical based upon George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. Unable to obtain the rights to the story for an actual production, Bowie combined the 1984-inspired tracks with songs about an alternate distopian future story set in a fictional locale known as “Hunger City.” He also essentially turned the Diamond Dogs tour into a one-man musical, or “rock theatre” as he described it. He performed in character as “Halloween Jack” (who’s introduced on the album’s title track), built elaborate sets that at one point allowed him to fly over the audience in the arm of a cherry picker, and hid his backing band behind screens despite their protest. As Bowie put it,”I don’t want people to see you playing because it doesn’t look like a street if there’s a bass amp stuck in the middle.”
Recordingwise, this project was no less ambitious than the stage show it inspired. Writing characters and developing concept records was obviously not a new thing for Bowie of course, but Diamond Dogs did find him for the first time in a long time without his “Spiders from Mars” backing band. Most notable was the loss of lead guitarist Mick Ronson to a solo career. Though Ronson did help with most of the arrangements prior to the recording, most of the instruments on this record, including lead guitar, were played by Bowie himself. Only bass lines, drums, backing vocals, and a few string arrangements were provided by other musicians. Chief amongst these contributors was Tony Visconti, with whom Bowie had last worked on his self-titled second album in 1969. Visconti added string arrangements, and provided the mix for Diamond Dogs. He and Bowie would remain frequent collaborators all the way to Bowie’s final album, Blackstar.
Diamond Dogs accomplishes a lot of things at once, surely far more upon reflection than audiences at the time could have realized. Both the themes of 1984, and the exploration of death and depravity running rampant though the Hunger City stories perfectly tap into the pervading sense during the 1970s that the end was near. The epic song suite of “Sweet Thing”/”Candidate/”Sweet Thing Reprise” that comprises the centerpiece of the Hunger City arc quickly became a fan favorite. Beloved San Franciscan producer/indie rock master mind John Vanderslice covered Diamond Dogs in its entirety in 2013 as an homage and a tribute to an artist who was clearly a personal hero. He recorded these three songs as a continuous piece (not dissimilar to how they play on the original album), and re-titled his version with one of the often-cited favorite (and best) lines from “Candidate,” “Jump in the River Holding Hands.” That this series of songs packs such an emotional punch is all the more impressive for the fact that “Sweet Thing” marked Bowie’s first instance of using the “cut-up” writing technique, wherein an existing text would literally be cut with scissors and re-arranged to form a new text. You can hear David Bowie describe his deep affinity for this way of working throughout the years with KCRW’s own Chris Douridas in a 1997 interview.
Then there were the “Diamond Dogs” themselves. Bowie described his diamond dogs as little Johnny Rottens and Sid Viciouses. He envisioned them sporting wildly colored hair and wielding (Bowie) knives. They wore furs and diamonds acquired from looting sprees, but were also thin and hungry because they could never find enough to eat. So essentially, punks, before anyone knew what those were. Again, this was 1974, by the time punk “broke” in 1977, Bowie had moved on to pushing forward the sonic ideas that would come to define post-punk. Given too, that lead guitar wasn’t Bowie’s strongest suit, Diamond Dogs ends up predicting punk from a sonic standpoint as well with its overall sense of rawness and urgency. And as if all that weren’t enough, Diamond Dogs also served as Bowie’s official farewell to glam rock. And because he was David Bowie, he casually tossed out the perfect single “Rebel Rebel” as a parting gift.
For almost any other artist, a record this epic in its sound, scope, and concept could have been enough to retire on. But this wasn’t just any artist, this was David Bowie. And he was just getting started.